Parliament votes on 2014 budget

Editorial _

Men and women at work…

Parliament  is currently a place of learning, particularly bearing in mind the 2014 budget is the first oversight task.   With so many new parliamentarians and newly re-structured committees with new chairpersons, insofar as learning is concerned,  it is more than just simply a new school term but a new school term in a new school.

As in the past, it will be a little time before things settle down and MPs gather enough understanding to perform the role with which they are entrusted; the role of oversight.

Most are savvy enough to understand the separation of powers even though party whips can become quite intimidating at times.  In any case, the system soon sorts out those with nothing useful to say and those with critical and questioning minds.

Approving the budget

The learning curve is steep. Many have been thrust straight into a committee programme where the task of each committee is to approve the national budget allocated to each of the many government departments according to their performance for the last five years. All of this departmental knowledge MPs have to read up on, study their plans for the next five years and listen to the same departments giving briefings presented at working committee level.  This is  currently where Parliament is.

To not contribute and not to perform is a quick trip to political oblivion.

MPs must also understand the views expressed of the auditors general on the previous year’s financial performances of the particular department and of state utilities; how the plans interlock, or don’t interlock properly, into a cluster of associated departments; a fair idea of what the presidential ministry of performance, monitoring and evaluation thinks of them and the party line on the issues of the day dealt with by the particular section of state machinery.

At this stage in the new Parliament the whole question of current legislation in process has probably not arisen but shortly, for many MPs, it will just be a case of listening and absorbing viewpoints, particularly of those who drafted the legislation and why they did.

Implementation of NDP

Two important things are therefore happening at the moment. Each government is justifying not only its past performance but committing itself to a plan with targets for the next five years together with strategies for a longer term and medium and long terms budgets. Secondly, they will learn what legislation is in draft and in the pipeline and the policy reasons for such legislation.

Consequently, question time in debate is critical and whilst questions from MPs can range from probing enquiries to the frankly banal, the change is refreshing. Witness minister Hanekom’s turnaround on immigration visas; the cabinet turn around on independent power producers; and on the affirmation of nuclear power in the energy mix and the sending back of the improbable Gender Equality Bill – all as examples of changes in thinking.

More interesting are the questions being asked by new MPs. Such as the new ANC energy committee member when she asked candidly of the DG for clean energy whether he thought all the “greening” regulations and air quality capital costs might be scaring off investors. Or the EFF MP who demanded a list of all Eskom blackouts and the reasons for the interruption in service.

Where it happens

To a certain extent the questions might appear naïve but a more candid and new perspective does no harm.  The parliamentary system still remains the crucible of political policy and legislative debate, despite the undermining effect that can take place with a heavily weighted political opinion coming from a strong political majority.    Nevertheless, South Africa is protected by one of the strongest constitutions in the world and the parliamentary process fortunately basks in its strong light.

Once the budget vote is debated, the Appropriations Bill – a section 77 money Bill protected from amendment by any party but Treasury by the same Constitution – Parliament’s attention will move towards the legislative landscape, hopefully tackling with as much vigour some of more the contentious issues facing the country.

Ends

 

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